Jim Haskins' Black, Blue and Gray: African Americans in the Civil War

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

In Jim Haskins' book, 'Black, Blue and Gray: African Americans in the Civil War', Haskins attempts to correct the historical record by highlighting the story of the African Americans who fought for both sides during the Civil War, but had traditionally been written out of history books.

Forgotten Soldiers

The American Civil War is one of the defining moments in US history, and one of its most obsessively documented. Almost every bookstore and library in the country has a 'Civil War' shelf groaning under the weight of the numerous history books published about the conflict. And that doesn't even count popular fictions like Gone with the Wind.

Yet even with all of the ink that has been spilled about the conflict between the northern and southern states, which was largely driven by the question of slavery, not every story has been told. In fact, according to Haskins, some stories have been deliberately left out of the historical record.

In Black, Blue, and Gray: African Americans in the Civil War, first published in 1998, historian Jim Haskins highlights contributions by black soldiers whom, as he illustrates, had been systematically ignored by historians for generations.


Haskins' book examines contributions by African Americans before, during, and after the Civil War conflict, which lasted from 1861-1865. The book starts with the history of slavery in America before and after the Revolutionary War, the rise of the abolitionist movement, which sought to end slavery, and includes harrowing stories of the Underground Railroad, the network that allowed escaped slaves to travel north to free states.

He then turns to the Civil War itself, set in motion by the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, of the anti-slavery Republican party, and the subsequent secession of the Southern states, in which they attempted to leave the United States and form their own separate country.

He focuses on the northern Union forces, telling familiar stories like that of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the all-black unit depicted in the film Glory, but also including lesser-known stories of black soldiers. He examines how white soldiers and commanders reluctantly accepted black soldiers, assuming they were not equipped to fight, and how the black soldiers proved themselves on the battlefield. He points out that by the end of the war, 12 percent of the Union forces were African American.

While Haskins mainly focuses on the Union soldiers, he also includes stories of black soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. This includes slaves who were conscripted by their masters and a small number of free blacks who chose to fight for the Confederacy of their own free will.

Haskins ends the book with an examination of how generations of white historians erased black soldiers from the historical accounts of the war. Dismissing examples like the 54th Massachusetts as anomalies, these historians created a narrative of brave northern white men fighting to free the southern slaves.


The biggest theme of Haskins' book is the way unconscious, and sometimes conscious, prejudice can shape history. His book is an argument against the generations of historians who ignored the contributions of African Americans, both intentionally and unintentionally. With this book, he attempts to correct the record.

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